Ice Fishing With Tip Ups (Complete Guide)

UPDATED 25 AUGUST 2021

by Bill Laney

Tip ups are among the most effective tools available for ice fishing, and can help you to catch a lot more fish than you would with a regular rod and reel setup.

Traditionally, tip ups have been most commonly used to target northern pike under the ice, but they work just as well for catching walleye and trout, and can even be adapted for catching smaller species, such as yellow perch and crappie.

In this guide we’ll walk you through the details of how ice fishing tip ups work, how to set them up correctly, and our best tips to catch more fish with them. 

What are ice fishing tip ups and how do they work?

Tip ups are ice fishing devices designed to suspend a fishing line with a baited hook through an ice hole, and to alert you when a fish takes the bait. In most cases, this is achieved with a flag attached to a spring. When a fish grabs the bait, this causes the line spool to rotate, which in turn releases the flag and causes it to pop up.

While all tip ups share this basic function, they come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and designs.

In most cases, the bite indicator is a brightly colored flag, but in some cases the indicator comes in the form of a bell that creates an audible signal, or even an electronic mechanism that sends a text message to your phone. Using a non-visual signal can be helpful if you want to wait for bites inside the comfort of an ice fishing shelter.

Tip ups are designed to work without a fishing rod, and so you need to fight the fish by pulling the line in manually, hand over hand.

Tip up vs tip down – what’s the difference?

In contrast to tip ups, which come with their own spool, tip downs are designed to work with an ice fishing rod. Basically, they are built to hold a short ice fishing rod pointed upwards at a 45 degree angle, with a baited hook suspended through an ice fishing hole. When a fish takes the bait, the rod tips down towards the ice hole without offering any resistance, thus notifying the angler there’s a fish on the line. 

The biggest difference between tip ups and tip downs is that a tip down doesn’t allow the fish to take a lot of line, and so you need to get to the rod as fast as possible to set the hook and play the fish. Because of this, it’s most commonly used for catching smaller species, such as perch and panfish.

In contrast, a tip up can keep on releasing line until the spool runs empty, which makes it better suited for catching larger species, such as pike and walleye.

Why use a tip up for ice fishing?

The biggest advantage of tip ups is that they can be observed at a distance while waiting for a bite. This means you can set up a lot of tip ups to cover a large area, and thus increase your chances of catching fish. If you compare this approach to fishing with a single rod, you’ll understand why tip up fishing is so effective for catching more fish.

In fact, a great strategy is to set up several tip ups, and then to fish actively on another ice hole with your rod and reel. Your active rod can help to attract fish with the movement of your lure, and when they come in to investigate, this can result in more bites on the other lines.

Types of ice fishing tip ups

Tip ups come in four main types:

Wooden cross-stick design: the oldest type, and used to be the most commonly used one. It consists of two sticks that cross each other to form an “X”, and a third stick that is attached at a perpendicular angle to hold the line spool. The stick with the line spool is inserted into the ice hole, and has a spring metal with a flag attached to the other end.

Rail-style design: currently the most commonly used type of tip up. It consists of two parallel pieces of wood or plastic that form a rail, and can be placed on top of an ice hole. In some cases, this design looks like a flat board instead of a rail.

A metal rod that runs perpendicular to the rails holds the line spool at one end (to be inserted into the ice hole). A spring with a flag is located at one end of the rails, and this is attached to the rotating trip bar of the metal rod with the spool. When a fish takes the bait, the rotating trip bar triggers the flag to spring up.

Round thermal design: designed as a flat round board, these tip ups are intended to cover an ice hole completely and thereby prevent the hole from freezing over. The trigger mechanism is similar to the rail-type design.

Wind powered design: these tip ups are designed to hold the line spool above the water, and have a “sail” mechanism that uses wind power to actively jig the line up and down in the water, which can help to trigger more bites.

The most commonly used type of tip up nowadays is the rail-style design, probably because this design is both reliable and simple to use, as well as being compact and easy to transport. The ease of transportation is especially important if you’re going to set up more than ten lines at the same time.

Wooden ice fishing tip ups

Traditionally, all tip ups were made with wood, but nowadays the trend is moving towards plastic, since it’s lighter and less expensive than wood. But if you’re like me, you prefer to use wood because it feels better when handling it. In that case, make sure you get a model made of hardwood, as this will be the most durable option (Beaver Dam and Frabill make great wooden models). Also, if you want to build homemade ice fishing tip ups, then you should make sure to use hardwood components to build them.

What is the best tip up for ice fishing?

The best tip up for you depends a lot on your personal preferences, since there are many models with a wide variety of designs and build material available on the market, and each of them come with their own pros and cons. 

To get you started, here are some of the most popular tip up models:

Beaver Dam original tip up: this one of the most popular models in the rail-style design category, and has been around for many decades. It’s built with high quality pine hardwood, and is a pleasure to use as well as highly durable.

Frabill hardwood tip up: similar to the Beaver Dam, but less expensive.

HT Polar Extreme round thermal tip up: this is one of the most popular thermal models, and effectively prevents your ice hole from refreezing by covering it up. The plastic build material makes it both light and durable.

Frabill Pro thermal tip up: similar to the HT Polar Extreme, but less expensive.

As you can see, the most popular models are rail-style designs, followed by round thermal designs, and Frabill provides more budget-friendly options than Beaver Dam and HT.

What line should you use for tip ups?

The best line to use for tip ups is Dacron braided line. This has more stretch than regular braided line, and as a result lays better on the spool. The extra flexibility also helps when a fish takes the bait, as it allows line to be released from the spool more smoothly, without alerting the fish with resistance.

For bigger fish, such as pike, walleye or lake trout, choose a 30 to 60 lb test line, which is strong enough to land even trophy fish. Keep in mind that your line will be chafing against the bottom edge of the ice hole during the fight, since you can’t use a rod tip to lower into the hole. Because of this, you want to use extra strong Dacron to catch big fish.

On the other hand, if you’re targeting smaller fish, such as yellow perch or panfish, choose a 15 to 20 lb test line, which will give you more sensitivity, and allow you to set up a finesse tip up rig to detect subtle bites.

Since heavy test Dacron has a high visibility underwater, you should always use it with a fluorocarbon leader. The only exception to this is when you’re using a metal leader for pike.

How much line should be on a tip up?

In most cases, around 75 yards of line on a tip up is plenty. The main exception to this is if you’re targeting fish in deeper water (such as lake trout), in which case you’ll want to spool 100 yards or more.

How much leader should you use on a tip up?

The ideal leader length for a tip up is 2 to 4 feet. You can use shorter leaders in stained water, while in clear water and during bright light conditions it’s better to choose a longer leader, to avoid finicky fish getting spooked by your thick main line. 

How to rig a tip up

Here are the key steps to set up ice fishing tip ups quickly and efficiently:

  1. Start by spooling your tip up with the right pound test line for the kind of fish you want to catch (see above).
  2. Attach a snap swivel to the end of the braid, which will allow you to change leaders easily.
  3. Then attach a fluorocarbon leader with a hook, and add a split shot weight about 1 foot above the hook. If you’re planning to use big baitfish, you can also opt for a heavier sliding sinker to make sure it stays at the right depth.
  4. Drill a hole in the ice, and check for depth (see below for more details on how to do this).
  5. Next put your baited hook into the ice hole and lower it down to the designated depth, followed by inserting the spool into the water, with the tip up straddling the ice hole.
  6. Lower the flag of the tip up, and attach it to the rotating trip bar of the spool.
  7. Adjust trigger sensitivity. Try to make it as sensitive as possible without triggering the flag unnecessarily. If the sensitivity is too heavy, a fish taking the bait will feel resistance, and is likely to spit out the bait, but if the sensitivity is too light, your bait fish may be able to trigger the flag.
  8. Move on to your next tip up, and repeat steps 1 to 7.

Once you have deployed all your tip ups, make sure to keep an eye on them to monitor for bites. Periodically pull up your rigs to check if the hooks are still baited, and experiment with changing their depth every now and then. 

Where should tip ups be placed?

Finding the right locations for your tip ups is the most important factor for success. Try to use a lake map to identify underwater structures such as hills, drop-offs, and points. These landmark points often attract congregations of bait fish, and as a result are also frequented by predators such as pike, walleye, and trout.

See also: how to read a lake map for ice fishing

If you find bays with weed flats, these are great locations to target, as they provide food for large numbers of bait fish. But don’t set up your tip ups directly on top of the weeds, as your bait will tend to be hidden in the thick of the vegetation. Instead try to locate the edge of the weed flat, and position your tip ups in a line along the weed edge.

In addition to this, using an ice fishing flasher or fish finder is also extremely useful, as it will allow you to identify actual fish on the structure that you want to target. If you spot clouds of bait fish, you can be sure that fish hunting them are likely to be nearby.

How to set depth on a tip up?

The easiest way to set depth on your tip up is by using a sonar with its transducer in the same ice hole. That way, when you lower your baited hook into the water, it will show up on the sonar display, and you can use that to release more line until it reaches the desired depth.

If you don’t have a fish finder, you can use the following method to set the depth on a tip up:

  1. After drilling the ice hole, attach a clip-on weight to your hook.
  2. Lower the hook into the ice hole and keep on lowering it until the weight hits bottom (causing the line to go slack).
  3. Next raise the line back up about a foot or two, and then attach either a small bobber or a button to the line, to mark the correct depth.
  4. Now pull the hook up, bait it with a minnow, and lower it back down to the designated depth (i.e. until you reach the bobber or button).

This method works best if you want to target fish close to the bottom, while a fish finder works better if you want to target suspended fish higher in the water column.

What bait should you use with tips ups?

Most anglers prefer to use live bait with tip ups, and the best bait fish to use for this purpose are suckers, minnows, and shad. Keep in mind that a tip up is immobile, and simply suspends your bait at a specific depth. So unlike an ice fishing rod, which can be actively jigged up and down to entice fish to strike, a tip up needs the activity of live bait to attract fish.

The main exception to this is when targeting pike, since pike are partial to dead bait fish, especially in winter. This makes it a lot easier to stock up on bait fish for pike, as you can use frozen shad, ciscoes, or tullibee (or even oily sea fish like mackerel or herring). If you can get sea fish fresh from the fishmonger, the results will be better, since they produce a scent in the water that pike seem to find irresistible.

See also: what are the best baits for walleye ice fishing?

Tip up fishing tips for the most commonly caught species

Now let’s take a closer look at how tip ups are used for the most commonly caught species – northern pikes, walleyes, trout, and crappie. 

Tip up fishing for pike

Northern pike are among the most popular species targeted with tip ups during the winter. In fact, tip up fishing regularly produces the biggest trophy pike winter after winter, and it also often results in the largest numbers of pike caught per day per angler (especially on lakes where you are allowed to set many lines).

See also: Detailed guide on tip up fishing for pike

A big advantage of fishing for pike with tip ups is that you can use it to cover more ground, as well as testing a range of different baits and depths, helping you to find the most effective strategies. For more details, check out our in-depth guide on tip up fishing for pike.

Another advantage of using tip ups for pike is that they are partial not only to live bait, but also readily take dead fish. In fact, oily bait fish such as mackerel, smelt, or herring can even outperform live bait on some winter days. This makes perfect sense from the perspective of a pike, since dead fish are easy prey, and don’t require expending energy to catch, while providing a highly nutritious meal.

See also: Ultimate guide to ice fishing for pike

Tip up fishing for walleye

Since walleye are often finicky biters, you need to use a long 4 foot fluorocarbon leader with your tip up. Try to set your flag trigger as sensitive as possible to detect subtle bites. If you find that the bite is slow, down-size your minnows to get them to trigger strikes. During the winter, walleye often take extra time to examine a bait fish before they commit to eating it. That’s why a finesse set up can help to get more bites, as the hook and line will be less conspicuous.

When it comes to Walleye, great locations to target are “pinch points” between two land points that force patrolling walleye into a narrow zone of water. Keep in mind that using tip ups gives you the advantage of being able to cover more ground than if using a single rod and reel, so you can exploit these pinch points more effectively.

See also: How do you catch walleye ice fishing

Tip up fishing for lake trout

While most anglers try to catch lake trout on a rod and reel, using tip ups can give you an additional advantage when trying to land a trophy fish.

One challenge when trying to catch lake trout in winter is that they hunt baitfish at almost any depth, from 60 foot depth to just below the surface, making it harder to zero in on the ideal depth to catch them. But by using an array of tip ups you can effectively cover a wider range of depths, and thereby increase the odds of catching lake trout.

In addition to setting up an array of tip ups at various depths, it’s also a good idea to use a rod and reel to actively jig in one of your ice holes, as this can work to attract roaming lake trout to come closer to investigate. If you hook a big lake trout, be prepared for a long, hard battle, and it’s best if you use gloves to handle the Dacron line, to avoid getting cuts in your fingers and palms.

When it comes to choosing the right bait, keep in mind that lake trout (similar to pike) like to eat dead fish in winter, and many lake trout anglers swear by a dead ciscoe as their top bait of choice. If you’re targeting trophy lakers specifically, you can use extra large bait fish up to 10 inches, and use a quick strike rig to increase the chances of hook up. 

Tips to catch more fish with tip ups

  1. Don’t set the hook immediately after the flag goes up: often a fish will grab your bait and do a short run with it, before stopping and proceeding to swallow it. So when your flag goes up, let the fish take that initial burst of line, and wait for it to stop before setting the hook. You’ll get a lot more hook ups that way.
  2. Keep ice holes from refreezing: since tip up fishing often involves hours of waiting, it’s quite common for ice holes to refreeze. You can prevent this by covering the holes with thermal covers that slide underneath
  3. Systematically cover large areas with tip ups: use systematic patterns, such as a grid or a zig-zag pattern to cover a large area, and determine which locations are most productive. For example, use a zig-zag pattern along a drop off, targeting points both on top of the drop off, and to either side of it.
  4. Test several different types of bait fish: start the day by testing several different types of bait fish, and as you start to notice that one particular kind of bait is producing more bites, switch all of your lines to that bait.
  5. Re-bait your hooks every hour or so: especially if you’re using live bait, it’s necessary to re-bait your hooks regularly to maintain effectiveness.
  6. When pulling in a fish, place the slack line on the downwind side: when you pull in a fish at the end of your line, you need to place the slack line on top of the ice next to the hole. Make sure you do this on the downwind side, so it doesn’t get blown into the hole.
  7. Keep your tip up spool from freezing: when you pull your spool out of the water, it can quickly get frozen after being exposed to cold air. To avoid this, always keep your spool submerged in water (unless you’re pulling up a fish, or re-baiting your hook).

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